Russia Developing Anti-Ship Ballistic Missile: Report

Reports from Russia suggest the country is the latest to develop an anti-ship ballistic missile, or ASBM, the class of weapon that’s popularly dubbed ‘carrier killer.’ The previously unknown missile project, known by the Russian name Zmeyevik (meaning serpentinite, a type of rock), would potentially add a powerful new dynamic to the Kremlin’s anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) strategy, which already includes different coastal defense missiles and in-development hypersonic anti-ship missiles.

According to a report from Russian state news agency TASS, based on two unnamed sources “close to the ministry of defense and the military-industrial complex,” the Zmeyevik has been in development for the Russian Navy’s coastal defense units “for quite a long time.”

The missile, which the agency says is primarily intended to target large surface combatants, including aircraft carriers, combines a ballistic missile with a maneuvering hypersonic glide vehicle (HGV) final stage.

One of the same sources described the Zmeyevik as being similar to the Chinese DF-21D and DF-26B ASBMs and that it would have a range of around 2,500 miles.

Details of the current status of the Zmeyevik’s development were not provided, although TASS did say it had approached the NPO Mashinostroeniya company for comment, suggesting that this is very likely the responsible design agency. The company didn’t respond but it’s noteworthy that it also produces the Zircon hypersonic anti-ship missile for surface warships and submarines, the Avangard HGV that can be carried by intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), and the Bastion coastal defense system that’s armed with Onyx supersonic missiles.

A test launch for the Russian silo-launched Avangard hypersonic missile:

The War Zone spoke to Dmitry Stefanovich, a Research Fellow at the Center for International Security, IMEMO RAS, for his observations about the prospects of the Zmeyevik.

“It looks like this project indeed was under development for a while, although there were no tests mentioned or observed, which, of course, does not mean that a prototype test could not have happened,” Stefanovich said. “Making fast anti-ship missiles is quite traditional for the Soviets and Russians, and a ballistic missile is a good option.”

However, Stefanovich also pointed to some drawbacks to the concept, at least as far as the Russian Navy is concerned.

“Given its range and speed, one needs serious ISR [intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance] and targeting capabilities, and also terminal guidance. Maneuverable reentry vehicles and hypersonic glide vehicles as a subtype of those make perfect sense to be a primary payload type in this case, however, there are obvious gaps in Russian ISR capabilities.”

Similarly, there have been questions about how China obtains targeting data to cue its ASBMs, although Beijing is seemingly better served in this respect. One option for Russia would be to use its over-the-horizon (OTH) systems for warning and targeting, space-based sensors, as well as its fleet of long-range maritime patrol aircraft. Unlike China, Russia doesn’t currently have a growing fleet of high-altitude, long-endurance drones that could help find enemy fleets and relay that targeting information to missile units, although that could also begin to change in the future.

A Russian Navy Il-38N maritime patrol aircraft. Papas Dos/Wikimedia Commons

“The focus on a coastal missile system as the primary platform [unlike Zircon, for example, which will initially be carried by surface combatants] is noteworthy,” Stefanovich continued. “Such systems have their generic radar capabilities and are probably easier to link into the overall situational awareness network over the seas adjacent to the Russian coasts, which includes over-the-horizon radars, among other things, although this is just speculation.”

“Apart from that, the Russian Navy has already demonstrated a very real land-attack capability for its coastal missile systems (namely Bastion and the subsonic Bal), which can be relevant for Zmeyevik as well.” Indeed, Russia has claimed to have used its Bastion-P coastal defense missile system for strikes against ground targets in Ukraine in the current conflict, which you can read more about here.

Russian Ministry of Defense video that it claims shows the Bastion-P missile system launching strikes against ground targets in Ukraine:

“Finally, deploying a ground-launched missile with a range of thousands of kilometers is hardly compliant with the Russian self-imposed moratorium of non-deployment of INF-range [Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces] weapons after the collapse of this treaty,” Stefanovich observed. “Of course, we do not know the timeline for actual deployment, so it is possible that the U.S. weapons like LRHW [Long Range Hypersonic Weapon] Dark Eagle or MRC [Mid-Range Capability] Typhon will arrive in Europe or Asia earlier, but these dynamics are also worth paying attention to.”

In the past, we have discussed the capabilities of ASBMs in a Chinese context, in the shape of the DF-21D and DF-26.

Now, it seems that Russia is also attempting to field a weapon in a similar category. While there are no details of the kind of launch platform the Zmeyevik will use, a highly mobile truck chassis, as used by the Chinese ASBMs and by other Russian mobile coastal defense missiles seems very likely.

As for the aforementioned Chinese weapons, the DF-21D is a medium-range ballistic missile (MRBM) – defined as a ballistic missile with a maximum range between 621 miles and 1,864 miles. The DF-26, meanwhile, is classed as an intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM), a category comprising longer-range weapons able to hit targets out to distances between 1,864 miles and 3,417 miles. Based on the officials quoted by TASS, the Zmeyevik would appear to be more comparable to the DF-26B, in terms of range.

Like the DF-21D and DF-26B, the Zmeyevik would require its HGV warheads to have enough maneuverability to hit large, relatively slow-moving ships, such as aircraft carriers, which appear to be among the missile’s primary targets. The HGV would likely use radar and/or an imaging infrared seeker for terminal guidance, although this is entirely unconfirmed at this point.

There is even the possibility that Russian might adapt the existing Iskander-M short-range ballistic missile as the basis for the Zmeyevik, although this is a much shorter-range weapon, capable of hitting targets at around 310 miles. However, the Iskander-M has already been used to create the Kinzhal air-launched ballistic missile, which offers a range thought to be somewhere between 900 and 1,600 miles. China, meanwhile, is increasingly exploring anti-ship missions for short-range ballistic missiles, with the CM-401 also having certain similarities with the Iskander-M, in terms of size and appearance. Beijing is also now deploying similar ballistic missiles on its surface warships and these, too, are very likely to have anti-ship capabilities or will aquire them in the future. Eventually, a ship-launched derivative might also be an option for the Zmeyevik program.

Chinese DF-26 intermediate-range ballistic missiles on parade. The DF-26B version has a maneuvring warhead for the ABM role. Imaginechina via AP

It’s also important to remember that the Zmeyevik would not be expected to operate alone but would add another layer to Russia’s existing A2/AD ‘umbrella’ that serves to defend its coastlines and the territory around them. In particular, the Russian A2/AD strategy focuses on maritime areas of particular importance, creating so-called ‘super missile engagement zones’ (MEZ), such as in the Black Sea and around Kaliningrad in the Baltic Sea. These employ a variety of anti-ship missile types — sea-launched, ground-launched, and air-launched, to ward off NATO warships.

In addition to well-established MEZs in the Black Sea and the Baltic, Russia is also in the process of developing similar capabilities in the Arctic, as well as in the Far East, where the disputed Kuril Islands are a particular focus. The relevance of long-range ASBMs in both of these highly strategic theaters is clear. Already, Russia has emphasized the deployment of new surface-to-air and shore-based anti-ship missiles, among other military hardware, to these outposts, as part of its broader A2/AD strategy. In this context, ASBMs would be all the more useful if they were able to strike land targets too. Bearing in mind Russia’s tradition of developing dual-role anti-ship/land-attack missiles, this seems likely. Another possible location for the Zmeyevik is the Mediterranean, where Moscow is taking an increasing interest. Here, there exists the option of stationing ASBMs in Syria, something that Russia has already done with air-launched anti-ship missiles.

Bal and Bastion coastal defense missile systems of the Black Sea Fleet carry out live-firing against sea targets during the Kavkaz-2020 maneuvers:

A long-range ASBM would allow the Russian Navy to engage warships at much greater distances, up to thousands of miles away from the relative safety of the Russian mainland, where they would be less vulnerable to protection to preemptive or counterstrikes. Unlike other coastal defense systems, an ASBM would also be able to engage targets across a very broad area without necessarily having to relocate first.

At the same time, a weapon like this would help make up for the relative lack of modern long-range anti-ship capabilities offered by the Russian Navy’s surface fleet, where ambitious programs to build new classes of warships have so far failed to materialize.

Meanwhile, the Russian Navy’s existing classes of surface combatants developed primarily to target NATO aircraft carriers and other high-value warships, the Project 1144 or Kirov class and the Project 1164 or Slava class cruisers, and their anti-ship missiles, dating back to the Cold War era. The relative vulnerability of these types of vessels was clearly demonstrated when the Project 1164 cruiser Moskva was sunk during the war in Ukraine, apparently a victim of Ukraine’s subsonic Neptune anti-ship missiles.

While the Zircon hypersonic missile should provide the Russian Navy with a significantly enhanced anti-ship capability, this weapon is still not in service, despite extensive trials. Signs that this program might be running into difficulties emerged in 2020 when a leading Russian Navy official cited unspecified “childhood diseases” in its development effort. With that in mind, developing an ASBM could even be more straightforward, especially bearing in mind Russia’s experience with the in-service Avangard and the possibility of using an existing ballistic missile to carry the anti-ship HGV. And, even with the Zircon working without problems, this is a much shorter-range weapon, likely reaching targets at a maximum distance of around 620 miles.

As for defending against a Zmeyevik attack, this is by no means straightforward. Even spotting and detecting ballistic missiles can be complicated, while intercepting them is far more challenging than detecting and engaging low-flying air-breathing cruise missiles. For now, however, we have no idea whether a Russian ASBM has even been tested, let alone whether it will be able to reliably hit a target representative of even a large moving ship, such as an aircraft carrier.

if the technology can be made to work, however, the benefits of an ASBM to the Russian Armed Forces are clear. Now that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has led to further ostracization and potential for conflict with NATO and the West, the Kremlin’s need for robust A2/AD capabilities is only likely to become greater. Whether in the Arctic, the Baltic, the Black Sea, or the Far East, a Russian ASBM would further add risk to any other navy choosing to operate in these areas. With that in mind, we will keep a close eye on further developments in the Zmeyevik program.

Contact the author: